Italy

A Tour of Ravenna–A Roman and Byzantine Marvel

From our stay in Ferrara (Italy) we moved on to Ravenna, about 87 km (54 miles) southeast, near the Adriatic Sea and not too far south of Venice. Ravenna has been on my bucket list for a long time. It has a glorious history as the capital of the western of Roman Empire between the fall of Rome (5th century CE) and the rise of Byzantine Empire in Constantinople (Istanbul). The main tourist sights are the beautiful early Christian mosaics found in the churches and baptistries from the 5th – 6th centuries, amazingly still intact. They are incredible!

Shown below are most of most main sights to see in Ravenna.

Basilica di San Vitale

This church is probably the most stunning of all the locations. The mosaics date from 526 – 547 CE, and look like they were finished yesterday.

Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.

Exterior of the Basilica di San Vitale, which may have been designed by someone from Constantinople.

San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy

The apse of San Vitale – perhaps the most stunning mosaics in all of Ravenna. One has to just stand there in awe and absorb all the detailed work that went into creating these murals.

Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy

A close-up of the mosaics in San Vitale, showing stories from the Old Testament of Abel and Melchizedek making offerings.

Mausoleo di Galla Placidia

Right next to San Vitale is the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia. Despite its name, this structure became a private chapel rather than a tomb. The Mausoleo was begun in 430 CE.

Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy

Exterior view of the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia.

Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy

Interior view of the Mausoleo. The alabaster windows were an early 20th century gift from the King of Italy.

Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy

One other view of the interior of the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia.

Battistero Neoniano (Neonian Baptistry)

This is Ravenna’s oldest monument, from the early part of the 5th century CE. It is located next to Ravenna’s Duomo (cathedral) and the very cool 10th century leaning bell tower.

Neonian Baptistry, Ravenna, Italy

The Neoniano Baptistry is on the right, the leaning 10th century bell tower is in the background and the Duomo on the left.

Battistero Neoniano, Ravenna, Italy

Interior of the Battistero Neoniano, showing the baptism of Jesus in the ceiling of the dome.

Ravenna Duomo, Ravenna, Italy

Although not part of the historical tour ticket, this is an interior view of Ravenna’s Duomo, located next to the Battistero Neoniano. The Duomo has been rebuilt over the centuries, the current structure dates from the 18th century.

Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo

This is a 6th century CE church, named for the first bishop of Ravenna, and it has a bit different feel to it than the other monuments above (rectangular, lighter and more open). It was constructed by Theodoric the Great, as his palace chapel. It is also included as part of the combination ticket. There are mosaics of scenes from Christ’s birth, his miracles and resurrection as well as representations of numerous saints and martyrs in this church.

Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy

Exterior view of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo church (6th century CE).

Sant' Apollinare Church, Ravenna, Italy

Interior view of Sant’ Apollinare Church. On the left lower panel is a procession of 22 virgins traveling towards the Madonna and Child (located near the apse).

Sant' Apollinare interior, Ravenna, Italy

This image captures part of the succession of martyrs (lower panel), opposite from the procession of the virgins. The structure to the right of the martyrs represents the Palace of Theodoric.

To visit the main sights above, go to the tourist office in the old town, and purchase a ticket (€11.50 at the time of our visit) and a map of the sights included.

ravenna-battistero-neoniano1

This sign, at one of the main sights, shows the places included in the combination ticket.

The streets are also pretty well marked, with arrows pointing and providing directions towards the main churches.

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Example of a street sign providing directions to the sights.

Keep in mind that you will be walking quite a bit, although the points of interest are not too far apart and can be easily visited in 2/3 of a day. During our visit in May, the sights were not crowded, there were no lines to enter any of the churches. However, later in the summer, it will likely be quite a bit busier, we saw ropes to handle long lines at least at a couple of the more popular locations.

In addition to the sights above, there are some other places you should see in Ravenna.

Battistero degli Ariani

I’m not sure why this little late-5th century CE baptistry is not part of the ticket above, but it’s worth taking a look. I think it cost €1 to visit. It is located a few blocks from Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo.

Battistero degli Ariani, Ravenna, Italy

Exterior of Battistero degli Ariani.

Battistero degli Ariani, Ravenna, Italy

The cupola of the Battistero degli Ariani, showing the Apostles ringed around baptism of Christ.

Basilica di San Francesco and Dante’s Tomb

The Italian poet Dante died in Ravenna in 1321, and his tomb is just to the side of the Basilica di San Francesco, which is also worth a visit for its flooded crypt.

Basilica di San Francesco, Ravenna, Italy

Exterior view of the Basilica of San Francesco. Dante’s tomb is on the left side, out of view of this photo. The church was built between the 9th and 10th centuries CE, and then underwent modifications a couple hundred years later.

Basilica San Francesco crypt, Ravenna, Italy

The flooded 10th century crypt (complete with gold fish) in the Basilica di San Francesco. You pay 1 euro to have the crypt illuminated. The marshy land and high water table in Ravenna has kept the crypt flooded for centuries.

Dante's tomb, Ravenna, Italy

Exterior of Dante’s tomb.

Dante's tomb, Ravenna, Italy

Interior of Dante’s tomb, he was 56 years old when he died.

San Giovanni Evangelista

This church, close to Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo was rebuilt over the centuries, and has some very interesting fragments of old mosaics along its aisles.

San Giovanni Evangelista, Ravenna, Italy

Interior of San Giovanni Evangelista, which looks similar to Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo.

San Giovanni Evangelista, Ravenna, Italy

Examples of the mosaic fragments in San Giovanni Evangelista.

Everywhere you turn in Ravenna, there is something interesting to see…

Ravenna, Italy

An old Roman building on a street corner in Ravenna.

The old town has a pleasant main square, with restaurants surrounding it.

Piazza del Popolo, Ravenna, Italy

Ravenna’s main square, Piazza del Popolo.

Ravenna, Italy

Ravenna street scene. In the afternoon, the streets are pretty quiet, until the residents come out for their evening stroll.

We stayed in a lovely B&B just south of the old town, perhaps a 1/3 mile walk to the center of the old town.

Torre Asinelli and Torre Garisenda, Bologna, Italy

Bologna – the Other Italian City with Leaning Towers

We all have heard about the leaning tower in Pisa, Italy, but have you heard of the leaning towers in Bologna? While these towers may be less famous, they are the signature feature of this beautiful city, which is located roughly halfway between Florence and Venice. Two of the most famous towers in Bologna are Torre Asinelli and Torre Garisenda, which are mere feet from each other. These towers were built in the 12th century by two important families, trying to outdo each other by the height of their towers, as a way of demonstrating their power and wealth.

Torri degli Asinelli e Garisenda, Bologna, Italy

The Asinelli and Garisenda towers. It is difficult to get a photo of these two towers given the proximity of all the surrounding buildings.

The tallest, Asinelli, can be climbed, but get your ticket in advance. We got ours on my phone while waiting in line, not knowing how busy it would be and we were lucky to get a ticket for an immediately available time. These towers are probably the busiest spot in Bologna from a tourist standpoint. Otherwise, Bologna is fairly quiet.

Asinelli Torre, Bologna, Italy

A view of the Asinelli Torre. As can be seen, it leans a bit to the left in this photo.

From the top, you get an amazing view of Bologna and look down on the Torre Garisenda, which had to be shortened by about 36 feet in the 14th century due to its significant lean.

Asinelli and Garisenda towers, Bologna, Italy

Looking down from the top of Asinelli tower towards the Garisenda tower.

Bologna, Italy

A view of Bologna’s skyline and a few other surviving towers from the top of Torre Asinelli. At one point there were 200 towers in Bologna, they must have been quite a sight.

Bologna, Italy

Another view from the top of Torre de Asinelli looking towards San Petronio Church, which can also be climbed for a great view of the leaning towers, shown below.

Torre Asinelli, Bologna, Italy

A view of some of the 500 steps descending from the top of Torre Asinelli.

Torre Asinelli and Torre Garisenda, Bologna, Italy

A view of the Torri degli Asinelli e Garisenda towers. Torre Garisenda (the shorter) leans 10 feet off of vertical. Torre Asinelli is 318 feet high and the fourth highest medieval tower in Italy.

In addition to the towers, there are lots of other fun sights to visit in Bologna. Several of these are described below.

San Petronio Basilica

This church, named after Saint Petronius, who was bishop of Bologna in the 5th century, was founded in 1390 and was originally intended to be larger than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Funding for the building was diverted for other purposes and the church was scaled down and never fully completed.

San Petronio, Bologna, Italy

Exterior view of San Petronio. The facade was never finished.

San Petronio Church, Bologna, Italy

The immense interior of San Petrino, with 22 chapels off the main aisle. A bit hard to see, but in the lower left of the photo is a meridian line, drawn by the astronomer Cassini in 1655, providing a precise solar method to determine a day of the year.

Piazza Maggiore, Bologna, Italy

Piazza Maggiore, next to the San Petronio Basilica.

Abbazia di Santo Stefano

A connected maze of four medieval churches, known as Abbazia di Santo Stefano, was one of my favorite sights in Bologna. There is a long history of churches on this site, originally dating back to about 80 CE. Over a thousand years, the site expanded with additional chapels and other structures.

Abbazia di Santo Stefano, Bologna, Italy

Exterior view of Abbazia di Santo Stefano, located just a short walk from the leaning towers.

Abbazia di Santo Stefano, Bologna, Italy

The 11th century church of the Crocifisso, part of the Abbazia di Santo Stefano complex.

San Sepolcro, Abbazia di Santo Stefano, Bologna, Italy

San Sepolcro, containing the tomb of Saint Petronius, is polygonal in shape, not unlike the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

Abbazia di Santo Stefano, Bologna, Italy

One of the courtyards in Abbazia di Santo Stefano. Note the intricate brick design on the exterior of the San Sepolcro.

Fontana di Pilato, Abbazia di Santo Stefano, Bologna, Italy

The Fontana di Pilato in another courtyard of Abbazia di Santo Stefano, with a basin from the 8th century.

Bologna University

Bologna is home to the oldest university in continuous operation in Europe, founded in 1088. A few rooms are open to the public and a couple of these are shown below.

Anatomy Theater, Bologna University, Bologna, Italy

This is the Anatomy Theater, the cadaver would lie on the table shown for dissection and study by students in the surrounding galleries.

Anatomy Theater, Bologna University, Bologna, Italy

The “3-D” ceiling of the Anatomy Theater at Bologna University.

Stabat Mater Hall, Bologna University, Bologna, Italy

Stabat Mater Hall, a former reading room for law students.

San Giacomo Maggiore Church

Another beautiful church, not too far from the towers is the 13th century San Giacomo Maggiore Church. The Bentivoglio family chapel within, consecrated in 1486, has famous 15th century frescoes.

San Giacomo Maggiore Church, Bologna, Italy

Exterior of the San Giacomo Maggiore church, with its porticoed walkway on the left side, so common in Bologna.

San Giacomo Maggiore Church, Bologna, Italy

The interior of the San Giacomo Maggiore church. The church contains numerous famous works of art.

Bentivoglio chapel, San Giacomo Maggiore Church, Bologna, Italy

A view of the Bentivoglio family chapel, with the famous “Triumph of Death” fresco by Lorenzo Costa (1483).

Bologna is a great city to visit with a lot to interest the tourist, and yet it receives far fewer visitors than its more famous neighbors to the north and south respectively, Venice and Florence. If you want to stay in a smaller city, Bologna can be done as a day trip from Ferrara, about 52 km (32 miles) to the north.

Bologna, Italy

Street scene in Bologna, with the 13th century Palazzo del Podesta at the end of the street.

Neptune's Fountain, Bologna, Italy

Neptune’s Fountain, (1566), another famous landmark in Bologna.

 

Ferrara, A Non-Touristy Gem in Italy

Located in northern Italy only 112 km (70 miles) south of Venice or 108 km southeast of Verona is the “undiscovered gem” of Ferrara. This town isn’t really on the tourist map and is one of those places I love finding and exploring. The vibe in Ferrara felt “authentic”, with just a handful of tourists and primarily locals going about their daily business. It is a compact old city, easy to explore in one day.

Ferrara, Italy

A view of central Ferrara from a tower of Estense Castle.

The two main sights in Ferrara are Estense Castle and the Duomo, both adjacent to the main piazza (town square). In addition to these sights, we enjoyed wandering the back alleys, which felt like they had not changed much in a few hundred years.

Estense Castle

Ferrara is home to one of the great castles in Italy, right in the heart of the town.

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

Street view of Estense Castle.

The castle was constructed in 1385, and although it has undergone many remodels since, it has the classic features that one would expect in a medieval castle–moat, dungeons, kitchens, halls and courtyards.

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

Moat around Estense Castle.

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

One of the castle’s halls. The mirrors on the main floor allow the visitor to get a closer look at the marvelous ceiling paintings.

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

Stone cannon balls in the castle courtyard.

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

Entrance to one of the dungeons in Estense Castle.

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

Prisoner graffiti in one of the castle’s dungeons. One prisoner spent 43 years here, and when he left he was proudly wearing clothes that were 43 years out of fashion!

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

The castle’s kitchen, with room for the fires below and the big pots above on the counter.

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

Two levels of dungeon doors, you didn’t want to get on the bad side of the d’Este family!

Estense Castle, Ferrara, Italy

Another view of the castle, with draw bridges – a difficult place to attack!

The d’Este family, who ruled Ferrara hundreds of years, built this castle and imprisoned their political enemies here. There were also at least two executions.

ferrara estense castle11

Illustrated bible of the d’Este family. The family, although ruthless, was a great patron of the arts.

Ferrara Duomo (Cathedral)
Unfortunately the 12th century Duomo exterior and interior were undergoing restoration work during our visit, but we were still able to see the interior.

Ferrara Duomo, Ferrara, Italy

Interior view of the Ferrara Duomo.

Ferrara Duomo, Ferrara, Italy

One of the chapels in the Duomo.

ferrara cathedral 3

Interesting display in the Duomo. Note the diversity of figures all working together on restoring the church.

The facade of the Duomo is one of the great architectural achievements of early renaissance Italy and I wish it would have been visible! Look it up.

Piazza Municipale and Surrounding Area

This is the central town square and like most in Italy, it is beautiful, with the Duomo on one side and the Palazzo del Commune (palace) on another side.

Piazza Municipale, Ferrara, Italy

Piazza Municipale, Ferrara. The Duomo is on the right. The Palazzo del Comune is straight ahead. Note the old medieval shops nestled right next to the Duomo.

Ferrara, Italy

A shopping street in Ferrara.

Ferrara, Italy.

One of many quiet alleyways in Ferrara.

Ferrara, Italy

Ferrara has an interesting feel to it, with the quiet cobblestone streets and old brick buildings.

Practical Matters

We stayed in a 15th century apartment (Nel cuore di Ferrara, you can find it on various accommodation booking sites), located about 5-10 minutes walking from the main piazza. What a quaint setting it was, in an old house with an enclosed courtyard and exposed ancient wood beams.

ferrara apartmentjpg

Our apartment in Ferrara.

ferrara famous bread

This bread is a trademark of Ferrara, but we didn’t find it all that great, kind of dry, more like a cracker!

Ferrara, Italy

Another delicious Italian meal in Ferrara!

Like many Italian cities, Ferrara has a ZTL (zone of limited traffic) which means that you must park outside the city walls and walk to the center of town (only 10-15 minutes). I am glad Italy has created the ZTL’s, they remove noise, pollution and traffic from the city centers. But be careful, unless you have a pass, you will get a steep fine if you drive in the ZTL area.

We made Ferrara our home base for a couple of days, visiting Bologna (only 50 km or 31 miles) from here, which also is not overrun with tourists – this will be my next post. We like staying in smaller towns which are easy to get in and out of. Ferrara is also close to Modena, home of Ferrari’s and Maserati’s, if you’re an Italian car enthusiast.

Padova – Home of the Scrovegni Chapel and Other Treasures

With Verona, Italy as a home base, we drove to Padua (also spelled Padova), which is 82 km or 51 miles from Verona or 40 km (25 miles) from Venice (which is another option for a home base).

Padova General

A view of the more modern part of Padua, with its exclusive shops.

The town of Padua is home to a few world-class sights, one of the most famous being the Scrovegni Chapel.

Scrovegni Chapel

This private Chapel of the Scrovegni family (the only structure remaining of the 13th century family palace) is one of the great historical gems of Europe. The family hired Giotto to paint the interior between 1303 – 1305, and he, with his assistants created a masterpiece. (The featured image of this post shows the Scrovegni Chapel altar alcove).

Scrovegni Chapel

A view of the interior of the Scrovegni Chapel. The far end of the Chapel contains scenes from the Last Judgment.

Scrovegni Chapel, Padova, Italy

A few of the panels showing scenes from the New Testament.

Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

A close-up of the betrayal of Christ scene.

We are fortunate that the Chapel is still standing to this day. The paintings represented a breakthrough for their time with the use of color and perspective (3-D-like). Within the Chapel’s walls are numerous biblical scenes, in chronological order. To allow for preservation of these 700 year-old frescoes, there are significant restrictions on the number of visitors allowed each day, so you need to plan ahead.

Note: You must purchase your tickets in advance. Once you know your itinerary, go to this website to purchase your tickets, which you then print and bring with you to the visitors center. You must arrive early enough to go through the dehumidifying chamber that helps protect the Chapel’s environment and frescoes.

Padova Scrovegni Chapel and Museum33

The dehumidifying room next to the Scrovegni Chapel. They show a video of the history of the Chapel while you wait (about 15 minutes).

During the busy summer months, I am sure tours book quickly (we visited in May, and I made our reservations in March). As I recall, you are allowed about 15 minutes for your visit, in groups of 25 or so. Pictures are allowed without flash. The Chapel is on the outskirts of the old center of Padua, and you can walk to the center of the old town in about 10 minutes. We used a car park just two blocks from the Chapel, not far from the train station.

Other Sights in Padova

Adjacent to the Scrovegni Chapel is the 13th century Church of the Eremitani, definitely worth a stop even though it’s largely ignored by tourists. This church reminded me of ancient Roman basilicas, with its austere rectangular shape.

Church of the Eremitani, Padua, Italy

Interior of the Church of the Eremitani. It has an unusual “boat like” wooden 14th century ceiling and remnants of frescoes, which were unfortunately damaged in World War II.

Padova Chiesa Eremitani 7

Some of the surviving frescoes in the Chiesa Eremitani.

Padova University

We lucked out and were just in time to take a tour of one of the oldest and most famous universities in Europe, founded in 1222. The university is in the heart of the old town. Tours are the only way to see the university’s primary historical sights including Galileo’s pulpit and lecture hall (he was on the faculty here for 18 years) and the anatomy theater. Unfortunately no photos are allowed inside.

Padova University2

Coats of Arms of some of the alumni of Padua University.

Padova University, Padova, Italy

Within this building are the anatomy theater and the hall where Galileo taught, with his original podium. Hard to get a decent photo of the University – it’s completely surrounded by other buildings.

The anatomy theater, where students would stand in narrow concentric rows above a cadaver table is small, and you are only allowed to view up into the theater from below the cadaver’s point of view. The theater was built in 1594 and is the oldest surviving medical lecture theater in the world.

Théâtre-anatomique-Padoue

This photo, courtesy of Wikipedia, provides a view of the anatomy theater in Padua University. The tourist is only allowed a view up through the center of the main floor table area.

Duomo (Cathedral) Baptistery

The 13th century baptistery is beautiful, and should be a definite stop on your visit to Padua. The frescoes date from 1378. The good news is that although an entrance fee is required, a visit is not time restricted, nor are reservations needed.

Padua Duomo and Baptistery, Padua, Italy

An exterior view of Padua’s Cathedral, the baptistery is the circular building on the right.

Interior of Padua's Duomo Baptistery

A view inside Padua’s Duomo baptistery.

Padua Duomo Baptistery.

A view of the dome of the baptistery. How hard would it be to paint this ceiling and keep any perspective!

Padua’s Palazzos and Piazzas

One of Padua’s main piazzas (Piazza delle Erbe) features a large, magnificent 13th century hall adjacent to the piazza. This building is used for various art exhibits. The entry fees are fairly expensive, so we did not go inside.

Palazzo della Ragione, Padua, Italy

A view of the Palazzo della Ragione, a 13th century great hall that housed medieval law courts, located in the center of Padua.

Plazzo del Capitanio, Padua, Italy

The Palazzo del Capitanio is located on Piazza dei Signori. It was built between 1599 and 1605, for the head of the city’s militia. A large astronomical clock is located on the front tower.

Vincenza

On our way back to Verona, we stopped briefly in Vincenza, a town that would be worth exploring a bit more. This city is known for its great architecture. We saw students studying and drawing several buildings. We walked around for about an hour before returning to Verona.

Vincenza, Italy

Vincenza’s southern gated entrance.

Vincenza, Piazza dei Signori, Italy

Vincenza’s main piazza, Piazza dei Signori. The tower, Torre di Piazza, was built in the 12th century (my wide angle lens makes it look like it’s leaning, but in reality it’s still standing straight up!).

Vincenza Duomo, Vincenza, Italy

Vincenza’s Duomo (Cathedral).

 

Verona – Beyond Romeo and Juliet

Located about halfway between Milan and Venice in northern Italy, Verona can be visited as a day trip from those locations, but this magical city deserves more time than just a day trip.

Verona, Italy

Street scene in Verona

Although Verona is most famous for being the setting of the story of Romeo and Juliet (Giulietta in Italian), the city has much more to offer, like all of Italy.

Roman Verona

Of course there are reminders of Roman times, including a huge arena which is still in use, a bridge, a gate, and walls and foundations underneath the streets and churches.

Roman Amphitheater, Verona, Italy

Verona is home to the third largest amphitheater in the Roman world. It dates from the 1st century C.E. It is located in the spacious Piazza Bra, near the old city walls.

Old city walls, Verona, Italy

Part of the old city walls, near the Roman Amphitheater.

Roman ruins, Verona, Italy

Roman foundations below the current street level.

Roman gate, Verona, Italy

Roman gate in Verona.

Verona, Italy

The bridge in the foreground is of Roman origin, it was partially destroyed in World War II and subsequently rebuilt. Verona’s Cathedral (Duomo) stands out with its tower.

It is easy to see why the Romans chose this spot – Verona sits on a u-shaped bend of the Adige River, providing a natural defensive setting, an ample supply of water and a central location that would become a hub for major trade routes across northern Italy, through the Alps and into the rest of Europe.

Map of Verona, Italy

Old map of Verona, showing its defensive position along the Adige River.

Other Sights

The only tourist sight that was crowded in Verona was the (supposed) house of Juliet, with its famous balcony (O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?). There is no confirmed link between this building and the story of the two doomed lovers.

Juliet's home, Verona, Italy.

The courtyard of Juliet’s “home” which was a 13th century inn.

Verona House of Juliet0

Graffiti on the walls from zillions of tourists passing by, with their stories and symbols of love, leading into Juliet’s courtyard. The panels are changed twice a year to allow more room for memories. The panels keep tourists from writing on Juliet’s house itself.

The rest of this city with its multiple treasures was pretty quiet. In Verona, one can find beautiful piazzas, interesting churches, a castle and huge city walls, along with the magnificent natural setting.

Pizza Erbe, Verona, Italy

Verona’s Piazza Erbe has been a center of activity going back to Roman times.

Sant'Anastasia, Verona, Italy

In the 13th century church of Sant’Anastasia we find this beggar figure supporting the holy water stoup, carved in 1495.

San Zeno bronze door panels, Vernona, Italy

The 12th century church of San Zeno, just outside the old city, houses many treasures including these 11th and 12th century bronze door panels containing biblical scenes.

Verona Duomo San Giovanni, Italy

In Verona’s Duomo (cathedral) complex, there is an 8th century baptistry, carved with biblical scenes.

Piazza Signori, Verona, Italy

Another of Verona’s Piazzas, Piazza Signori. The crenellated brick building was the 13th century Scaligeri family residence, the ruling aristocrats of Verona.

Castelvecchio, Verona, Italy

Verona’s medieval castle (Castelvecchio) is now an art museum. At Castelvecchio, a passageway leads to a pedestrian bridge over the Adige River, heading west out of the old city.

Verona Castelvecchio37

The Castelvecchio Bridge.

Of course you can find fantastic gelato and even British-like chips (french fries). Just about everything a tourist could want!

Verona Chips2

Hard to pass up those almost British chips in Verona!

Finding spots with fewer tourists was part of our quest on this most recent trip to northern Italy. Most tourists concentrate their time in Rome, Florence and Venice, and while I understand why those spots are popular, there is so much more to see in this stunning country. In future posts, I will share some additional less-visited gems, all hiding in plain sight.

Put Verona on your list of places to see in Italy, it is just 115 km (or 71 miles) west of Venice or 156 km (or 97 miles) east of Milan.

Caltabellotta Sicily Italy

Tour of Sicily: Overview

Sicily Italy Map

Sites visited in Sicily.

We visited Sicily in late April. This is a great time of year to visit, due to the pleasant temperature (low 80’s F), spring flowers and the green landscape. The only downside we could find with this time of year is all the elementary age school children visiting many of the tourist sites—it must be the time of year for school field trips. Sicily has a little different feel than other parts of Italy. The architectural style of many buildings is Baroque, built following a devastating earthquake in the late 1600’s. Sicily is an autonomous region of Italy, and appears to be a little poorer economically than northern Italy. The island has been conquered by many different nationalities over the centuries. For a good short overview of the history of this strategic island, I recommend the book:  Sicily: Three Thousands Years of Human History, by Sandra Benjamin.

Given the range of history, the sights are quite varied—from beautiful natural scenery, Greek Temples and Roman ruins, to medieval towns, churches and grand Baroque architecture.

Hotel Bel 3 Palermo, Sicily, Italy

Hotel Bel 3 Palermo.

Since Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean, we flew in to Catania on the eastern coast, and flew out of Palermo (northwest coast), so we could make a counterclockwise tour of the island. Other options to get to the island include a train to Messina (via a short ferry ride) or a ferry from Naples. We rented a car at the Catania airport through Europe By Car. The roads are in good condition and it was easy to navigate to all the sites. There were very few toll roads (Catania-Taormina and Palermo-Cefalù were the only ones we encountered) or major highways, most roads are two lane. I expected to encounter a lot of slow truck traffic and was pleasantly surprised to find very little traffic in general. Most visitors to Sicily travel by tour bus. We did our best to visit sites at hours that would avoid the tourist busloads.

B&B Piazza Armerina, Sicily Italy

B&B private rooms in Piazza Armerina

There are relatively few hotels on the island, so we stayed in bed and breakfast (B&B) accommodations, allowing us to meet local families and get a flavor for life in Sicily. We used BBPlanet.com and Venere.com to arrange the B&B’s. We loved most of the B&B rooms and locations. The Sicilian people are very warm and helpful.  We spent about 10 days on Sicily, which allowed us to cover the island’s main sights and a few less visited sights. We also spent two nights on Malta, taking the ferry from Pozzallo (near Ragusa). See our post on Malta for more information.

Caltabellotta Sicily Italy

The hilltop town of Caltabellotta in southwest Sicily

Although we had read that English was less widely spoken here, we didn’t have any problem communicating. Occasionally in restaurants ordering food was a challenge given our lack of Italian language skills, although knowing some Spanish certainly helped with understanding Italian vocabulary and in communicating. Plan on putting on some calories since good gelato can be found almost everywhere!

Greek Theater, Taormina, Sicily, Italy

Tour of Sicily: Taormina and Syracuse (Siracusa)

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Taormina

Our first stop was Taormina, about 45 minutes north of Catania. Taormina is compact town wedged between high cliffs and the sea. It was an easily defensible position anciently and in medieval times.

Greek Theater, Taormina, Sicily, Italy

Greek Theater, Taormina.

Roads and buildings seemed to be right on top of each other. Our B&B was on the north side of Taormina, right near the tram that takes visitors down to the beach area. We were within a 10 minute walk to the town. The main sight in Taormina is the Greek Amphitheater, rebuilt by the Romans in the 2nd century A.D.

The setting of this theater is one of the most spectacular in all of Europe, overlooking the town, sea and Mt. Etna.

Taormina Cathedral, Sicily, Italy

Taormina Duomo (Cathedral).

After visiting Taormina we drove up to the village of Castelmola. Set in the cliffs just above Taormina it provides a panoramic view of the whole area. Castelmola is a small village and there is a car park right off the road before entering the village. We hiked up to the castle ruins at the top of the village for a great view.

Castlemola, Taormina, Sicily, Italy

Taormina (with Castlemola at top of hill).

From Taormina, we drove south to Syracuse (about 2 hours), with a quick stop in Motta Sant’Anastasia (picture below-left), just to the southwest of Catania. The Norman tower (“Tower of Motta”), built around 1070, was not open. The town built on a rock outcropping above the plain is quite a sight.

Motta Sant'Anastasia, Sicily, Italy

Motta Sant’Anastasia

 Syracuse (Siracusa)

Our B&B in Syracuse was situated in an apartment building about halfway between the old part of the city (the island of Ortygia) and the Archeological Park Neapolis. Parking is limited in Syracuse-we had to find parking on the streets wherever we could. Once we found a spot, we tried not to move the car and walked around town for most of our stay. Ortygia is a small island connected to the mainland by a bridge. It is full of narrow alleyways, stately buildings and a very interesting Duomo (Cathedral-below) that incorporates the columns of a 5th century B.C. Greek temple and has a beautiful baroque facade. The Piazza del Duomo is quite beautiful as well. There is a good laundromat on Corso Umberto I just a few blocks from the bridge to Ortygia.

Syracuse Cathedral, Sicily, Italy

Syracuse Cathedral-Ortygia.

The next day we walked to the Archeological Park Neapolis which contains a number of old Greek and Roman ruins. We got there early to beat the tour buses.  The street signs are clear and point the way to the Neapolis area. There is one entry fee (about €10) that provides access to the entire historical area.   Sights include the ruins of a Roman amphitheater, Greek Theater (which workers were preparing for performances, held every two years), a votive area behind the theatre, the huge Altar of Heron where hundreds of animal sacrifices occurred, and the Quarry area including the cavernous Ear of Dionysius, where stone for the many monuments of Syracuse came from.

Altar of Heron, Sicily, Italy

Altar of Heron.

Ear of Dionysius, Sicily, Italy

Ear of Dionysius.

One of the other things we did that was very worthwhile was visiting the Catacombe di San Giovanni (Catacombs of St. John), which date from at least 300 B.C. There are at least 10,000 burial spots here.

San Giovanni Church, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

San Giovanni Church.

It is located in the heart of modern Syracuse, close to the Neapolis. The church above ground is in ruins, but the catacombs below are quite well preserved. The only way to visit is with a guided tour. There are several tours each day, and we happened to arrive just as a tour was starting. The cost was about €4. The tour starts in the underground Cripta di San Marciano which is in the form of a Greek cross and includes some frescoes. The tour then proceeds through sections of the massive catacombs.

Catacombs of San Giovanni, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

Catacombs di San Giovanni.

 

 

 

 

 

Ragusa Ibla, Sicily, Italy.

Tour of Sicily: Noto, Ragusa Ibla and Piazza Armerina

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From Syracuse we drove to Noto, only about 45 minutes by car. Noto is a UNESCO Word Heritage site, with several stately streets, churches and palaces.

Cathedral of San Nicolo, Noto, Sicily, Italy

Cathedral of San Nicolo.

One of the more interesting things we noticed was that as we were driving into town, a convoy of 16 Ferraris passed us. After we found a place to park, we walked into the center of town and noticed all the Ferraris had parked in a row right in front of the town hall (Palazzo Ducezio) apparently for a meeting. A convention of Ferrari owners? Sicily is known as the home of the Mafia, and this was as close as we came to seeing any signs of it.

We climbed the bell tower of San Carlo al Corso church for a good view of the city.

San Carlo al Corso Church, Noto, Sicily, Italy

View from San Carlo al Corso Church Bell Tower.

From Noto we drove to Ragusa, another UNESCO World Heritage site (less than 60 minutes’ drive), and specifically to Ragusa Ibla, the old part of the city set on a hill top.

Ragusa Ibla, Sicily, Italy.

View of Ragusa Ibla (old city).

The drive itself is scenic, over the deep valleys on high modern bridges climbing the hilly countryside of this part of Sicily. There was a large car park just below Ragusa Ibla, which is separated from the newer part of the city by 340 steps. It is worth the climb up these stairs for a good view of Ragusa Ibla. We then went into Ibla, walking to the Duomo (San Giorgio), and then down to the town square, and out to Giardino Ibleo (gardens) overlooking the valley. Ragusa Ibla is a classic baroque town of the 1700’s.

San Giorgio Cathedral, Ragusa, Sicily, Italy

San Giorgio Cathedral

From Ragusa, we drove to Pozzallo and caught the night ferry to Malta (see Malta blog post).

Upon our return to Pozzallo from Malta, we drove up to Piazza Armerina (about a 2.5 hour drive), to visit the world famous mosaics of the Villa Romana del Casale, which is just a few kilometers outside the town.

Villa Romana del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily, Italy

Villa Romana del Casale, near Piazza Armerina

I was surprised that the entry fee was only €3, and discovered the reason was due to the closure of part of the site due to restoration. Most of the site is covered by a glass structure, like a greenhouse. The Villa is large, with many rooms. The floor mosaics are in excellent condition due to their being covered by mud since the 12th century. The original owner must have been very wealthy to decorate the Villa so lavishly.

Piazza Armerina, Sicily, Italy

Piazza Armerina.

 

The town of Piazza Armerina is bypassed by most tour buses and tourists, and gave us a feel for a “real” Sicilian town. We wandered up and down a few streets and to the Duomo (Cathedral) for a good view of the surrounding countryside.

The next morning we drove northwest about 30 minutes to visit the ruins of Morgantina, originally inhabited around 1000 B.C. There are great views of the countryside and Mt. Etna in the distance. We found very few tourists at this site, making it a pleasant stop without crowds.

Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ruins in Morgantina

Temple of Castor and Pollux, Agrigento, Sicily, Italy

Tour of Sicily: Agrigento, Selinunte, and Segesta

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These three locations are the main Greek Temple sites in Sicily. From Piazza Armerina we drove through Barrafranca and Pietraperzia on our way to Agrigento. The springtime clear air and verdant green hills made this 2.5 hour drive very enjoyable.

Temple of Castor and Pollux, Agrigento, Sicily, Italy

Temple of Castor and Pollux (city of Agrigento in background).

We had heard that the scenic aspects of the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento was somewhat spoiled by the city being so close to the site. We were pleasantly surprised that the view is still quite beautiful, and the Temples sit on a wooded ridge between Agrigento and the sea. The site is large, so plan on a good walk to see the various temples. We visited in the afternoon and the light was perfect since the sun was setting over the Mediterranean.

Temple of Concord, Agrigento, Sicily, Italy

Temple of Concord

 Our B&B was in the center of the old part of Agrigento high up on the hill, and had a fantastic view of the Valley of the Temples.  Several of the streets were just wide enough for a small car to pass with about 1-2 inches to spare on each side. Most tour buses go directly to the temples and do not go into Agrigento. We would recommend a visit to the old part of the city. We found a good restaurant and enjoyed climbing stairs between the levels of the old streets. We stopped at the Convento di Santo Spirito and just peeked in since it was getting ready to close. The nuns saw us and invited us in for a look and in Italian did their best to explain to us the various features of the historic abbey-very friendly people.

Temple E, Selinunte, Sicily, Italy

Temple E, Selinunte.

The next morning we drove to Selinunte (northwest along the southern coast), with a short detour through the hill top town of Caltabellotta. Of the three temple sites, Selinunte was probably the least interesting, although it has a great setting on the coastline. The site is very spread out—it is about a 15-20 minute walk between the two main temple areas (the Acropolis and the Eastern hill). If one is rushed for time, be sure to visit Temple E (490 BC) on the Eastern hill, which is closest to the main parking. The main thing I enjoyed was hiking around the ruins of Temple G (Eastern hill) with the tumbled columns and being struck by the size of the blocks for the columns.  How did they erect and assemble such huge stones for these temples? Amazing.

Segesta Temple, Sicily, Italy

Segesta Temple.

Segesta. Don’t miss Segesta. It is about 40 miles north of Selinunte, not too far off the road on the way to Palermo. This temple is in the countryside, and in a very peaceful setting. The temple was never finished. The car park is close to the temple. On the hill just to the east of the temple there is a 3rd century BC Greek Theater and the ruins of the ancient town of Segesta.

Segesta Theater, Sicily, Italy

Segesta Theater.

The view of the valley and temple of Segesta is incredible from the Theater. There are buses every 30 minutes that take visitors up to the Theater, or it can be walked.  I wish we had walked down to the car park rather than taken the bus given the picturesque views of the temple.

 

 

Monreale Cathedral, Sicily, Italy

Tour of Sicily: Erice and Monreale

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Erice, Sicily, Italy

Street Scene-Erice

Erice is a well-preserved medieval town dramatically set on a high peak southwest of Palermo, and a good overnight stop between Segesta and Palermo. The views of the coast and the surrounding valleys are well worth the steep drive up the hill.

Erice, Sicily, Italy

Our B&B-Il Carmine, former monastery

Our B&B in Erice was an old monastery right inside the walls of the town. It was a great location, but the beds were hard! Our stay gave us an appreciation for the austerity the monks must have endured.

Norman Castle, Erice, Sicily

Norman Castle, Erice

Walking around the perimeter of Erice, wandering through the town square and visiting the castles make Erice a great stop. 

Monreale Cathedral, Sicily, Italy

Monreale Cathedral Interior

From Erice we drove to Monreale. The interior of the Monreale Cathedral (dating from 1172) has some of the finest gold mosaic biblical scenes in all of Europe, and I marveled at the effort and expense required to create these mosaics. Monreale is just a few miles from Palermo, so don’t miss it.

Monreale Cathedral, Sicily, Italy

Monreale Cathedral Apse Exterior

There is a convenient bus and car park just below the Cathedral. Like many churches and other sites in Sicily, Monreale cathedral closes in the middle of the day for a couple hours, so get there in the morning or the later afternoon